July 14, 2017

Remembering Bob Kimball

Starr King School for the Ministry announces with sorrow the death of the Rev. Dr. Robert “Bob” Kimball. The school’s former president, faculty member, and dean passed away on May 29, 2017 at the age of 88.

Born in Rochester, NY to Frederick Booth Kimball and Marguerite Steinmiller Kimball, Bob was a tireless learner. He earned four degrees in a decade, including a BA in psychology from Oberlin College in 1951, an MA in philosophy from Oberlin Graduate School in 1953, a BD from Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in 1955, and a PhD in the history and philosophy of religion from Harvard University in 1960.

Kimball received ordination through the Medina Association of the Congregational Churches of Northern Ohio in 1955. He served as Minister of Education in the First Hungarian Reformed Church of Cleveland, Ohio (1952-1955) and First Congregational Church of Hyde Park, Massachusetts (1955-1958), as well as Lecturer on Religion and Mental Health at Harvard Divinity School (1959-1960).

Bob’s rich legacy at Starr King School for the Ministry spans nearly forty years. He joined the school in 1959 as Professor of Theology, and as a member of the Graduate Theological Union’s core doctoral faculty. He would go on to serve Starr King in several roles, including faculty (1959-1998), president (1968-1983), and dean (1983-1997). Kimball has authored several books, including Restless is the Heart (1988); Sanctified Violence (2004); A Chinese Lady and Friends (2010); and Dilemma: The Christianity Faith (2011). He worked closely with distinguished theologian Paul Tillich, for whom he edited Theology of Culture: Essays by Paul Tillich (1959).

As President of Starr King School for the Ministry, Kimball launched the school on a period of creative growth. He recruited new faculty, established an endowment, secured accreditation from the Association of Theological Schools, held innovative summer schools, started the all-school meeting tradition and increased participation in the Graduate Theological Union. He also doubled the size of the student body from 25 to 50 students.

Under his leadership, women increased their presence at Starr King, transforming what at the time was an all-male student body and faculty. In 1981, the school established the Aurelia Henry Reinhardt Professorship to ensure a feminist perspective on the faculty and appointed Dr. Clare Benedicks Fischer to fill the position.

The Rev. Michelle Tonozzi, Starr King graduate and former board member, shares how Bob shaped her ministry:

“Bob was a true mentor to me. In the book he published post retirement, Sanctified Violence (describing the kind of violence that has been/continues to be done in the name of religion and theological education) he tells of the philosophy that undergirded his “theological” tutorials: In that one hour of one-on-one time with him each week, his purpose was not to try to explain what unconditional love is, but to give each of his students an experience of unconditional love. The radical YES to each student for their most authentic self. Also, the class he taught, Getting Away with Love: Perspectives On Love and Violence and his book which was published under the title Restless Is the Heart: A Perspective On Love and Violence (Wyndham Hall Press Copyright 1988) shaped my 30 years of ministry and my ways of being in relationship. He was the most honest and loving person I have ever known. Deepest gratitude for having known him.”

Starr King graduate, the Rev. Roy Reynolds, describes Dr. Kimball’s presence:

“Bob Kimball had the wonderful gift of presence. There are only a few people I have personally encountered in my relational life who remain in memory — the memory of my feeling life — who stand out in this way. In tutorials he seemed to be fully present, rather like a Zen master, who brought his full attention — mind, heart, and body — to each moment we were together. This memory and feeling comes not just from one session, but from a semester tutorial and several donrags. I felt blessed by that man. He was a unique and wonderful mentor.”

Starr King graduate, the Rev. Barbara Pescan, recalls a meaningful experience:

“He cut out the extraneous. He saw through lies, even when they were self-effacing, or denying some sadness: ‘Do you always laugh when you mean to cry?’ With colored pencils he drew diagrams to help you better see the point he was making – Ann and I call them Kimball-grams.

I once preached a sermon titled ‘The Other Side of the Page’ based on a Kimball-gram he drew for me, probably in 1980 or so. I was wondering, with fear and doubt, worrying whether Ann and I would be called to serve congregations, either separately or together some day. Whether we would be able to do ministry, in the UUA, given homophobia and homo-hatred, would it be possible. He got his colored pencils.

On one side of a 2 by 5 piece of memo paper, he made a list:

More school

The things expected for lives like ours, white, middle class, educated working women.

Then, he flipped the paper over. He drew an oval and wrote Ann at one end and Barb inside it at the other end. He drew other things outside the oval – I no longer remember what the forces were outside the oval, and although I kept that piece of paper for decades, I can’t find it now. He said that there was all that on the reverse side, the plan, the expectations for The Plan, and there was all that around the outside, but here were the essentials to answer my original question: There is all that over here, (he flips the paper over) AND there is Ann and there is Barb individually, and there are Ann and Barb together. Given Ann and given Barb individually, and given Ann AND Barb together, ministry just might be possible.”

Bob was dearly loved by his wife Lorna Jean Thomas, who preceded him in death after 65 years of marriage. He is survived by his children, Seth, Jeanette, Amy, and Paul, as well as six grandchildren.

We hold Bob Kimball’s family and colleagues in our hearts and prayers, even as we give thanks for his life and contributions to Starr King.

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